The gender conversation 5: politics & society

There’s no doubting that gender continues to occupy a lot of time, space & energy in the church. It regularly raises the emotions and generates a lot of heat and little light. It can also put Christians into camps where the ‘the other side’ can be seen, talked about & treated as a problem or worse ‘the enemy’. In the church this is nothing short of disastrous. So I’ve invited Hannah Mudge to a blog conversation with me about faith and gender.

Click here for part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4

P: Let’s talk feminism in society and politics. What are the issues that concern you the most and why? What steps would you like to see taken?

There are so many issues that need addressing! A few of them would be: violence against women and conviction rates concerning such crimes (as I’ve previously mentioned – more needs to be done to change the way police deal with cases, to make women feel able to report incidents, to stop the justice system from victim-blaming); the way that the brunt of the government’s cuts is being borne by women thanks to the fact they are often poorer, more likely to be carers or lone parents, more likely to work in the public sector, and more likely to be accessing child/maternity-related benefits. Poverty is a huge issue for the UK in general at the moment and affects women – and by association, a lot of children – in a huge way. This even relates back to the VAWG issue because the recession has meant that funding to women’s shelters and rape crisis services has been affected. Many areas have no services and shelters at all. Other VAWG issues are important too. It’s estimated that around 24,000 girls are at risk of female genital mutilation in the UK every year. It was criminalised here 27 years ago yet to date there have been no prosecutions – this needs to change. It is no small issue. Worldwide it’s estimated that 140 million women and girls live with the devastating, dangerous, and excruciating consequences of FGM.

Then we have the gender pay gap and workplace discrimination, which includes harassment at work and the fact that around 30,000 women lose their jobs every year because they’ve become pregnant. Many job sectors are very hostile places for women to work despite gains made for women in the workplace – boardrooms and positions of power are so male-dominated and the result of “old boy networks” that continue to favour wealthy, privileged men. I think this can mean that many women and people from more diverse backgrounds feel that aspiring to such positions is “not for them” and are discouraged. Talking about the workplace brings me to the need for more family friendly working practices – an approach to parental leave that works for more people and enables mothers and fathers to be more flexible about the time they take off. Companies need to understand that more than ever, men want to take time out to spend with their children, and that increasingly, women are just as likely to be the higher earners in the household, so it may not make sense for them to take a long time out of work. Affordable childcare is a huge issue. A lot of women have been forced to quit work because their jobs don’t pay enough for them to afford childcare, and childcare in the UK is actually the most expensive in Europe.

P: Again there are lots here to agree with. But of course the world is complicated, so for example having been involved in small businesses I understand that there it can be a considerable expense and burden when one of your employees become pregnant. That’s the reality, so more would need to be done to help small businesses in particular.

Living in Sweden where childcare is massively subsidised and parents have long and flexible parental leave (for both mothers and fathers) the perspective is a little different. However everything must be paid for and Sweden has a considerably higher tax rate for everyone, so a higher overall VAT (25%), plus VAT on food but at a lower rate (12%), VAT on books etc and a higher rate of income tax and higher employers contributions. I assume you’re willing to pay the price for your convictions but do you think even most women in the UK would be willing to do the same?

I think that a lot of women would be willing to stump up more tax in exchange for long and flexible parental leave, and also subsidised childcare. I’m a member of a parenting website and when discussions about this come up the majority of people seem very much in favour. Of course, not everyone would agree and obviously the economic climate at present is particularly problematic, but I think there is real support for such changes.

P: The other side to the policies in Sweden is the impact on family life. So while they might be described as amongst the most ‘family friendly’ in the world, the goal hasn’t been to strengthen family life but to enable women back into work (the two things are not the same) because the unquestioned assumption is that both parents should be working. As a result, the divorce rate in Sweden has gone up and is now amongst the highest in the world. Obviously there is a lot of progress still to be made in Sweden too because despite being considered one of the more equal societies it also has the highest incidence of rape in Europe.

I was wondering if you would bring up Swedish family policy as it’s something that really intrigues me! I agree that encouraging women back to work is not the same as “family friendly” – in my mind “family friendly” means giving families the choices to do what is best for their personal circumstances. For some families, that means one parent staying at home, for others, that means both working either full time or part time. Apparently in increasing percentage of men would like there to be a more positive attitude towards flexible hours for men rather than just women, as they would like to spend more time with their children. Economic circumstance forces some women to work when they don’t want to, or more than they want to, and requiring them to stay at home would be just as miserable for many.

I’ve just been reading about divorce rates worldwide thanks to that link you sent! Interesting that it claims it is linked to support from the state and the economic independence of women. I don’t think these are a bad thing, obviously. Sweden is also a very secular country, isn’t it? You’re probably much more familiar than I am with the circumstances and attitudes there and how they affect family life. We hear a lot about family life in Scandinavian countries in general because they are often held up as an ideal, aren’t they? I was interested to see recently that Finland boasts the highest percentage of children who live with both their parents (95%) compared to the UK’s 68%. Sweden came in with 78%. There’s been a lot of speculation as to exactly why this is.

I have to admit that I’d missed that news about the rape stats in Sweden. One article I’ve now read about it gives some reasons why this could be the case:

– Recording each incident of sexual violence separately e.g. in the case of marital/partner rape, recording each instance as a separate crime, which of course could number in the hundreds.
– Awareness raising in order to encourage women to report attacks
– Improved police handling of cases
– Societal changes including increased alcohol consumption and internet as a means of meeting potential partners
– Legal reform in 2005, which widened the definition of rape

So as is the case with all countries, looking into sexual violence statistics is quite tricky and it’s difficult to compare countries, too. The high rate of rape cases is concerning of course. Does sexual violence make the news a lot in Sweden, and what are attitudes towards it – and women who report it – like?

P: I think it would be worth looking at those numbers on children living with their parents. I know here in Sweden parents could be divorced or separated and the children would live one week with one parent and the following week with the next and that would count as living with both parents. The law generally favours a 50/50 split to avoid protracted custody battles – it’s an attempt to deal with some of the issues stemming from a high divorce rate. On the issue of the rape in Sweden, I think even when you take into account all the other factors like higher reporting, different definitions and so on, it’s just higher here and no one has really figured out why. The best explanation they have is that in a sexually promiscuous society couple that with high alcohol intake and that’s a recipe for disaster.

In terms of how it’s reported I think there is far less stigma here; as the higher incident reporting suggests women feel more confident to go to the police. But as I’m still working on my language skills I’m cautious of speaking beyond my knowledge!


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